Opinion: What was the real message behind the executed search warrant on the COVID whistleblower's Florida home?

Frank Cerabino
Palm Beach Post
Frank Cerabino

The armed executed search warrant by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents this week on the home of the state’s most influential COVID-19 whistleblower is an event that needs to be followed closely.

This could be about way more than one anonymous message. 

Rebekah Jones went from a state-paid coronavirus data analyst who was praised for building Florida’s COVID-19 reporting dashboard to an independent critic of its reporting methodology in May.

Former Florida Health Department scientist Rebekah Jones

That’s when Gov. Ron DeSantis fired her, saying that she was an insubordinate employee who was refusing to follow data analysis procedures set forward by the Florida Department of Health.

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“What she was doing is she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” DeSantis said at the time. “So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors.”

Jones countered that she was fired for posting the real, and more alarming numbers of COVID-19 infections in the state, and for refusing to manipulate that data to allow DeSantis to justify easing pandemic restrictions.

Rather than sulk away after being fired, Jones began her own COVID-19 reporting dashboard, expanding it to include reporting on infection cases in schools.

More:Ousted Florida scientist Rebekah Jones’ whistleblower complaint takes aim at DeSantis

And by doing that, she has gained a national audience. She continued to question Florida’s reporting methodology, and in July she filed a whistleblower lawsuit that directly called out the governor.

“These efforts to falsify the numbers are a pattern and practice in Florida government that goes on to this day,” Jones’ attorney, Rick Johnson, said at the time of the filing. “DeSantis has routinely given false numbers to the press.

“His underlings (at the Health Department) follow his example and direction.”

What triggered the executed search warrant on Jones’ home this week was an anonymous group message sent to members of the State Emergency Response Team last month. 

"It's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead," the Nov. 10 anonymous computer message said, according to the affidavit. "You know this is wrong. You don't have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late."

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According to investigators, that message was sent on the closed state system known as ReadyOP by an unauthorized computer hacker. And upon further investigation, it led to an internet protocol address that corresponded to Jones’ home in Tallahassee.

So, when FDLE agents pounded on her door Monday morning, they had already papered her up with a probable cause action of a cybercrime against the state. 

Here’s why we need to pay attention, and why the truth here matters:

If the state’s version is true, and Jones hacked into the state’s system in a quest to recruit other whistleblowers, she crossed a line that makes it easier to condone the state’s heavy-handed response.

But Jones is telling a far different version of that executed search warrant — and one that, if true, is far, far more alarming than the alleged crime.

“I don’t think they’re after me,” Jones told CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a televised interview after the raid.

Jones said the FDLE agents left electronic devices behind, only taking the laptop where she did her data work and her cellphone.

“And on my phone is every communication I’ve ever had with someone who works for the state who has come to me in confidence and told me something that could get them fired or in trouble like this,” she said.

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“And I just want to say to all those people right now, if he doesn’t know already, DeSantis will know soon enough that you’ve been talking with me. So be careful.”

Jones said she isn’t the author or the poster of the anonymous message because she’s not a computer hacker, and she hasn’t had any access to the state’s system since she was fired.

Also, it doesn’t make sense, she said. Why would she need to use a closed system to urge whistleblowers to come forward when she has been doing it openly on television and newspapers for months?

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“This is just a very thinly veiled attempt by the governor to intimidate scientists and get back at me while trying to get to my sources,” she said.

If that’s true, it’s a big deal. It would be a gross misuse of power if the state concocted a bogus reason to raid the home of a whistleblower — one with an active case against the state — for the purpose of unearthing her sources of information at gunpoint.

And there are other parallel events to suggest why this may be the case. DeSantis has been making many other heavy-handed moves to muzzle public information on the virus.

In September, the county-level health department spokespersons were kept from issuing COVID information, and schools were told not to release infection numbers. He also decreed that local governments can’t enforce fines for face mask violations.

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In October, as cases began rising, Florida’s Surgeon General, who had been mostly silent, cautioned residents to question the data. And in November, the Florida Department of Health’s communications director was reassigned without explanation.

Meanwhile, Florida hired a little-known sports blogger, Uber driver and anti-masker from Ohio to be a COVID-19 data analyst for the state.

Jones maintains adamantly that she never wrote the anonymous message that sparked the raid, and that she didn’t even know what it said until Monday, when she read the affidavit for the search of her home. 

“A lot of the language used in it was not the way I talk,” Jones said of the message. “And the number of deaths that the person used wasn’t even right. They were under by 430 deaths. 

“I would never round down 430 deaths.”

The executed sea stopped Jones from her daily COVID report on Tuesday, but she promised to be posting again shortly.

“DeSantis needs to worry less about what I’m writing about and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state,” Jones told Cuomo. “Doing this to me will not stop me from reporting the data. Ever.”

Rebekah Jones raid:Read full search warrant from Florida state police

In other Florida news: See what ‘Florida Man’ has been up to in 2020

So let’s see how this turns out. Either Jones wrote the message or she didn’t. There’s a truth here to be learned.

If she did, she let her zeal go too far. And lying about it has hurt her credibility.

But if she didn’t write that message, this incident may catapult into the upper echelon of wrongs that DeSantis has been amassing over his response to this pandemic.